Fletcher Beach 1845 -1929

Fletcher Beach.
Photograph by Lafayette Ltd. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Born in Dorset, Fletcher Beach studied medicine at Kings College, London, and went on to specialise in mental illness becoming a resident physician at the Bethlem Royal Hospital. His interest in the treatment of mental defectives was sparked by a trip to to the United States where he visited a number of institutions for the feeble minded. He was appointed as medical superintendant of the school for imbecile children at Darenth in 1876, and remained here for twenty years. He held various posts after Darenth, being physician to the Chalfont Epiletic Colony and physician at the West End Hospital for Nervous Diseases, and maintained a healthy private practice.

Fletcher Beach was an entrepreneur. He advertised his home in Kent for the backward and feeble minded in the BMJ of April 1893. The Royal College of Physicians was outraged since it was considered ‘contrary to practice and tradition of the College for Fellows to advertise themselves in any way’. Fletcher Beach wrote to the College apologising for the advertisement and claiming that he had no idea that he was ‘transgressing the traditions and practices of the College’. He went on to repeat the transgression in November 1893 by sending out a circular advertising the Kent home for feeble minded patients to local asylums and medical practitioners. Once again, the College wrote an indignant letter to Beach about his ‘scandalous’ advertising, and threatened to remove Beach’s fellowship. In January 1894 Beach wrote back to apologise, again pleading ignorance of the College rules. He agreed that he would not send out any more circulars (RCP/LEGAC/2412/20-32 held at the Royal College of Physicians London).

The private madhouse was a relatively common solution to the problem of the ‘idiot child’. Private, for-profit institutions were the major source of care for idiots and lunatics though out the eighteenth and well into the nineteenth centuries [1]. These were lucrative concerns, and many businesses passed from father to son as evidenced by the Normansfield Hospital for imbeciles in Teddington run by the Langdon-Down family. (Langdon-Down first described the characteristics of Down’s syndrome or mongolism). Normansfield was described by Langdon-Down in May 1868 as a private home for the ‘care, education and treatment of those of good social position who present any degree of mental deficiency’. Fletcher Beach was closely associated with Langdon-Down. Between them, they organised the first ever medical conference on idiocy in Belfast in 1867 and were recognised as the ‘most influential idiocy alienists’ of their day [2]. Beach bought Winchester house on Kingston Hill, Surrey, situated about five miles from Normansfield. Whilst this was his family home, he also took in feeble-minded children along the same lines of Normansfield. By the time of the 1901 census, the were fifteen such  children living with him at Winchester House, including Armine Lomax. He was very proud of his facility, since he invited members of the Medico-Psychological Association to his ‘at home’ at Winchester House once he was inaugurated as President of the society in 1900.

Beach was a skilled medical politician, playing an active role in the British Medical Association, and becoming president of the Medico-Psychological Association. He was the first President who worked exclusively in the field of mental deficiency. He served on the Parliamentary Bills Committee and was a member of its Lunacy subdivision. He was a consultant to the National Association of Feeble-Minded and was an influential leader in the philanthropic movement which lead to the passing of the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913. He attended international medical congresses and had a wide circle of medical friends in many countries who ‘appreciated his geniality and kindness of heart’ [3].

Beach was a prolific writer and had numerous books and papers published, mostly covering his interest in the management of idiocy. He believed that if a feeble-minded child could be educated from an early age, he had a good chance of becoming a useful member of society, perhaps working in domestic service for the girls or in unskilled manual work for the boys.   His treatise on Treatment and Education of Mentally Feeble Children in 1895 was hugely influential at the time. 

Dr Beach loved travel, and Alpine climbing in his youth.  He was married twice, and had one son, Lionel, who died of influenza during the First World War. Beach had enormous energy and once the First World War was declared he went back to work at the Cane Hill Asylum as a medical officer. He stayed in post for the duration of the war despite his advanced age. 

Bibliography

1. Parry-Jones, W., The Trade in Lunacy: A study in Private Madhouses in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Studies in Social History. Vol. 25. 2013: Routledge.

2. Wright, D., Mental disability in Victorian England : the Earlswood Asylum, 1847-1901. Oxford historical monographs. 2001, Oxford ; New York: Clarendon Press. vii, 244 p.

3. Obituary: Fletcher Beach. The British Medical Journal, 1929. vol 2. 444